NOCONA -- The temperature regularly reads 108 on the downtown bank sign, and it's still difficult sometimes to find parking.
In Texas, it's easy to read the fortunes of a business or commercial district by the number of parking spaces available. For many years, since about the era of tailfins and chrome, parking in downtown Nocona was as wide-open as the cattle country stretching north to the Red River.
But Nocona, a town of 3,000 with a history of pumping black crude and stitching leather boots, is emerging from a long winter of neglect and deterioration, infusing hope and pride, not to mention millions of dollars in investment, into a community that didn't have a lot to brag about in recent years.
Ten buildings downtown have been completely renovated and restored to the look of their early 1900s origins. One block of buildings is under restoration by an oilman and his wife, who are relocating their oil company from Wichita Falls.
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People are building residential spaces above or next to their businesses, proving that downtown condos are not just the purview of urbanites. And a once-a-month concert of Texas red dirt musicians is drawing people with addresses in Fort Worth, Grapevine and McKinney.
This renaissance is occurring in a city where there is no grand courthouse or darling public square. It is occurring in a town that is not on the way to anywhere else, unless someone needs to go to Spanish Fort or Belcherville. Even more miraculously, it is happening with private money and no tax incentives.
Mayor Robert Fenoglio, usually found wearing an apron from his barbecue restaurant, is also proud that locals engineered the revival.
"We've been trying to revitalize the downtown for the last 50 years," he said. "We had very little luck doing it until the last five years. It's been contagious. When a building gets finished, somebody else buys one and wants to refinish it."
Shops, not chains
Stealing a page from towns like Hico, Brenham and Jefferson, Nocona has turned its eye to attracting day-trippers, weekenders and small businesses as a way to recapture its glory days.
"I'm not that interested in getting the chain restaurant," said James Yohe, executive director of the Nocona Economic Development Corp. "I am interested in that custom cabinetmaker or the person who makes hand-blown glass or the unique shop. We want to capitalize on the heritage of craftsmanship that Nocona has always had as a way to attract tourists."
Nocona's turnaround can be traced directly to Dan Fenoglio, a fast-talking, artistic construction company owner.
Dan Fenoglio, the mayor's younger brother, spent $500 in 2002 to buy two condemned buildings adjacent to each other on Clay Street. One was his maternal grandfather's grocery store from the 1920s, so he had some sentimental attachment.
Between paying jobs, Dan Fenoglio cleaned up the buildings, shored them up and eventually began restoring them into something he could really enjoy -- a saloon and a dance hall with a big smoker in the back.
"I like to cook, and I wanted to have a place to have a drink with some friends," he said. "I didn't do this with the idea of changing downtown."
Daddy Sam's Saloon, with an old wooden bar, brick walls, and a heavy dose of animal trophies and Remington and Russell reproductions, opened in 2006 and immediately became the venue for Nocona Nights, a startup that hosts country acts such as Johnny Bush, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Eleven Hundred Springs.
Dan Fenoglio started renting out the saloon for private parties too, a revenue stream he never counted on. The rest of the time the bar is closed.
The experience of reviving the saloon and his grandfather's grocery taught him a lesson that would ultimately shape the rest of downtown.
"I wasn't particularly interested in the history of Nocona," he said. "But when I was working on these buildings, the old-timers would bring me pictures and share stories with me. Most of the pictures in this saloon are from people in town who gave them to me. I got interested in the history from talking to them."
'It was terrible'
The blue-stem and tall-grass prairie gave birth to Nocona in 1887. Several ranchers gave up some land to create the town so the railroads would come through, forever relegating the nearby and older settlement of Red River Station to the history books.
Named for Peta Nocona, a fierce Comanche leader and the father of Quanah Parker who most assuredly used to lead murderous raids in Montague County, the town built a reputation for oil and leather.
The North Field boomed for many years, and a roughneck didn't have to look far for work. The Nocona Boot Co., started by Enid Justin because she was angry at her brothers for moving Justin Boot to Fort Worth, employed hundreds. Nokona Leather Goods manufactured some of the most sought-after baseball and softball gloves, not to mention more aerodynamic footballs, anywhere in the country.
But oil prices collapsed, and the Middle East became the prime oil supplier for the world. People wanted cheaper gloves too, and China could do that better. Justin Industries shut down Nocona Boot in 1999.
Nokona Athletic still produces top-flight professional gloves, and the startup Montague Boot Co. produces boots for the Cavender's retail chain. But the largest employers in town are all now government-related -- the school district, the hospital and the city.
The downtown looked all but abandoned, and it was getting close to actually being that way.
But Dan Fenoglio's painstaking restoration a few years ago had an effect on Nocona. It spurred more of the same.
The school district renovated its two buildings downtown, stripping off the dated '70s facades and returning the buildings to their turn-of-the-century beginnings.
Superintendent Harold Reynolds, who was responsible for that, retired but decided he wasn't done playing preservationist.
"Downtown was dying. It was terrible," his wife, Sandra Reynolds, said. "When we retired from the school system, we felt like we needed to give back in some way."
So the Reynolds cashed in some of their retirement funds and bought a 100-year-old former bank building. The tin ceiling and plaster walls were original, but the floor was dirt, and the upstairs slept the occasional homeless squatter.
Now it's the Times Forgotten Steakhouse, the first restaurant in downtown Nocona in years and a far more sophisticated place than the fast-food or barbecue restaurants most small towns support. The steakhouse even has a full bar, although it is upstairs, a bit out of the way so as not to offend local Baptists.
"My friends at church tease me about tending bar," Sandra Reynolds said. "I never thought I'd know so much about drinks or how to run a restaurant."
'Stepping into the '50s'
The spirit of restoration continued to Rusty Fenoglio, who owns and operates Gibbs Pharmacy downtown. (He is distantly related to Dan and Robert Fenoglio. Yes, there are many Fenoglios in Montague County, all descendants of a group of 19th-century Italian immigrants.) He climbed into the second-story above his pharmacy, a long-shuttered boarding house that he had never utilized.
"It was like stepping into the '50s," he said.
By 2010, Fenoglio had gutted the second floor and turned it into a 2,400-square-foot living space for him and his wife, complete with a giant bar, flat-screen TV disguised as a mirror and a balcony overlooking the street. He spent a good deal more than he'd wanted to.
"Whatever you think it's going to cost, double it," he said.
But as downtown's first full-time residents, Rusty and Carolyn Fenoglio never thought it would become their primary home.
"When we finished it, we were going to stay here part time," he said. "Our main house is out at the lake. But it got so handy, being upstairs from work, that I bet we haven't spent five nights at the lake in the last year."
The restoration of downtown reached a tipping point quickly this year when Pete and Barbara Horton returned to their hometown for, of all things, the city's first-ever Mardi Gras parade. Pete Horton owns Peba Oil & Gas Co. in Wichita Falls, where the couple has lived for eight years.
"It was so much fun to see something that's not just western in our area," said Barbara Horton, whose family goes back generations in Nocona. "We'd always left town to have fun, but we had as much fun there then as we've had anywhere. We looked around at all the ruin and just got to thinking of what could be."
The couple bought very nearly a block of buildings, plus several on other blocks, and began restoration. Local construction crews are involved, but the Hortons also hired craftsmen from Dallas-Fort Worth, filling local motels and restaurants for weeks at a time.
Two of the buildings, including an old Chevrolet dealership, will be used to showcase Horton's rare-car collection. Another two buildings will house Peba Oil & Gas. The Hortons also plan to build a New Orleans-style house on one corner of downtown, reminiscent of their current vacation house in the Big Easy.
"We've never done any of this before, so we don't know what we're doing," Barbara Horton said. "But eventually we'd like to see a bike trail and a park downtown. I'd like for downtown Nocona to be pretty and friendly and welcoming and maybe a destination spot, if even for an afternoon.
"But if no one ever comes, that's OK," she said. "It'll still be worth it because we love our little community."
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547